AJ Auxerre held ten-man LOSC Lille Métropole to a goalless draw as their 1-0 first-leg victory proved enough to seal a berth in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals at the expense of their Ligue 1 rivals.
It was Kanga Akalé whose goal gave the home side a slender lead going into tonight's encounter and the Ivorian striker could have doubled the advantage after less than eight minutes tonight when compatriot Bonaventure Kalou's cute pass found him in space just inside the box. But after blasting his first effort straight at Tony Sylva, he could not bring the rebound under control and the chance went begging.
The miss came in a frenetic opening when either side could have scored. At the other end, Matt Moussilou met a low right-wing cross at the near post, but under pressure from Bacary Sagna, the French youngster snatched at the shot.
With talismanic striker Benjani Mwaruwari ruled out with a thigh injury, Guy Roux opted to play Luigi Pieroni at the apex of a three-pronged attack, with Akalé and Kalou playing just behind. If Akalé's early chance did not vindicate the decision, his combination with Pieroni on 23 minutes could have done so, although the Belgian youngster held on to the ball for too long, allowing the Lille defence to recover.
The visitors posed a threat on the break, however, and only the brilliant intervention of Fabien Cool just outside his penalty box denied Moussilou a clear run on goal. But such openings were rare for Claude Puel's team as Auxerre began to dictate the game and they almost married the scoreline to their dominance just before half-time.
On 43 minutes Akalé collected a loose ball and jinked into the box, evading the challenges of Efstathios Tavlaridis and Mathieu Chalmé, before unleashing a powerful drive that fizzed just over the crossbar. Three minutes later he found himself even better placed after being put in the clear by Kalou. But after rounding the goalkeeper, the 24-year-old lost his composure and when he eventually struck a scuffed shot, Milivoje Vitakic was on hand to clear.
But the interval proved a watershed and when the teams reappeared, it was the visitors who took the initiative as captain Philippe Brunel began to orchestrate the midfield. Indeed, it was the robust 32-year-old midfield player that almost gave his side parity on the hour, when he ghosted around the Auxerre back-line to meet a Christophe Landrin cross. But free at the back-post he headed straight at Sagna.
Spurred on by a vociferous home crowd, Auxerre rallied in the final quarter and with the dismissal of Vitakic after an off-the-ball fracas with Lionel Mathis on 76 minutes, went any realistic chance of Lille breaking the deadlock. The home side held on to their one-goal advantage and they will line up in tomorrow's draw, while Lille, who had entered this competition by winning the UEFA Intertoto Cup last summer, reflect on what might have been.
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